The New York Times - About Croatia
In Croatia, A New Riviera Beckons
By STEVE DOUGHERTY
''YOU will cry when you see it. Bring tissues. You will need them.''
We are finishing a marathon meal at Macondo, a seafood restaurant on a nameless back alley in Hvar. My dinner companion, a local painter, writer and actor named Niksa Barisic, was talking about a historic theater built in 1612 during the Dalmatian Renaissance and still in use half a millennium later. But he could just as well have been describing his feelings for Hvar itself, a mountainous, lavender-scented isle set in the blue, sun-blasted Adriatic Sea off the Dalmatian coast of Croatia.
For centuries, the island has lured visitors and inspired poets. ''I know paradise now, I know Hvar,'' a lyric local saying goes. Now, 10 years after the end of a bloody civil war that devastated much of Croatia, it still struggles as it sees hope for its future in ancient tourist meccas like Hvar, sister islands like Korcula and Mljet, and Dubrovnik -- Croatia's, and, arguably, Europe's, most beautiful city.
Recently rediscovered as an off-the-radar haven by the international celebrity set and their media-camp followers, Dubrovnik and Dalmatia's many romantic islands and hidden coves provided backdrops for lavish photo layouts in magazines like GQ, which this year proclaimed the Croatia ''the Next Riviera, '' and Sports Illustrated. In May, Croatia, a scythe-shaped country that sits astride the star-crossed, blood-drenched Balkans, was named the world's hottest travel destination in the new edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Croatia, which cited its ''rich diversity of attractions,'' accessibility and ''relative affordability'' (its currency, the kuna, is far friendlier to the dollar than the euro is) as well as its ''stunning beaches and islands'' and ''magnificent food.''
That's a surprising turnaround for a country that saw its most fabled city, Dubrovnik, nearly destroyed by artillery bombardments during a months-long siege in the 1991-95 war. With eight million visitors expected in Croatia this summer, the government-run national tourist board has begun a campaign to restore tourism to its prewar levels, when upward of 10 million visitors annually flocked to the beaches of Dalmatia and Istria, the neighboring coastal province to the north. Back then, the tourist industry accounted for a full third of Croatia's national income. Tourism officials say that the number of visitors has grown 6 to 10 percent in each of the past several years.
Nowhere is the tourist board's touted ''Magical Croatia'' brand more fitting than on Hvar, where they give names to the wind but not the streets, where children are said to fly and the richest man in the world has to wait for his latte during fjaka, when the island tucks in for its afternoon siesta.
Holding court at Macondo, Mr. Barisic, a burly, bearded cross between Jerry Garcia and Zorba the Greek, is quick to cackle at his own stories and eager to share his knowledge and love for Hvar and its bounty. ''You must be careful,'' he cautioned as he poured me a glass of the rich local red, strong as it is delicious. ''One glass you won't feel; have two, you won't feel a thing.''
Describing Hvar (awkward in English, it's pronounced hwahr) as a ''hideaway for the creative poor and the very rich,'' Mr. Barisic said, ''Celebrities like to come here because they're left alone. Bill Gates sails in on his yacht and no one pays any attention. No one cares. There are no paparazzi, no fans, no autographs. I was in a cafe with my daughter and a lady sat down at the next table. My daughter said, 'Dad, that's the lady from ''Shakespeare in Love.'''''
Gwyneth Paltrow is among the many red-carpet faces seen blending in with the crowds in recent summers. ''It gets to be like 42nd Street around here in July and August,'' Mr. Barisic said the next afternoon as he sipped a whiskey-laced coffee in one of Hvar's outdoor cafes. ''No one sleeps during the season. Everyone is jumping around, singing and roaming the streets until dawn.''
The scene is hard to imagine during a visit in late March, when the sun-drenched square, a wide piazza from the 13th century paved with polished white stone mined on Hvar and its sister island, Brac (the same stone was used in Split to build the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian and, 16 centuries later, the White House) is deserted during fjaka.
Toddlers chase pigeons across the square, squealing with delight. Elderly men smoke in the cool shadows cast by the bell tower of the 16th-century Cathedral of St. Stephen, which forms the picturesque west face of the square.
A three-legged dog, a red scarf tied at its neck, trots as best it can behind its master who, like most dog owners here, carries a leash but seldom has use for it. Dogs here are a well-trained lot who obey voice commands and stroll in and out of the open-air cafes as they please. Their owners don't bother scooping up after them. That work is left to professionals, street cleaners who do an excellent job keeping tourists' Manolo sandals unsoiled during the raucous high season.
My friend Buga Novak, a Hvar-born translator and interpreter who lives in Zagreb, took me on a walking tour of Hvar town. Strolling the riva, the long waterfront promenade that winds around the harbor, she pointed out a hilltop fortress and the remains of city walls that were built in the 13th century to defend against Turkish pirates. Far above, another fortress, built by Napoleon, one in a long list of invaders, today bristles not with cannon but with instruments to record seismological and meteorological data.
On summer nights, when the fortifications above are illuminated and fishing boats bob at anchor in the harbor, films are shown in an open-air theater where audiences sit at tables, drinks are served and, Ms. Novak says, the chatter and action off screen can be as entertaining as the film.
In front of the Hotel Palace, children play at the base of the Pillar of Shame, where in the Middle Ages sinners were tied up for display, jeered at and spat upon. Nearby, water taxis line up along the riva to ferry summer hordes of beer-cooler toting ''naturists'' -- the guidebook euphemism for those who like to perform their sun worshiping naked -- to the island's highly popular offshore nudist beaches.
''The ancient Greeks and the Romans were growing grapes and producing wine on Hvar 300 years before Christ,'' said Andro Tomic, a local vintner, as he toured his vineyards high on the windward face of the near vertical mountain ridge that runs the length of Hvar. Mr. Tomic was one of only a handful of Croatians I met who did not speak English.
With Ms. Novak translating, Mr. Tomic said that Hvar's abundance of sun and strong winds -- which he called ''ideal conditions for producing the highest quality grapes'' -- had kept the vineyards insect and disease free. Those same winds blow with such force off the Adriatic that workers tending the vines have to be tethered by ropes to prevent them from being swept from the mountainside and cast out to sea, Mr. Tomic said.
Mythologized by islanders' ancestors, the winds are known by name throughout Dalmatia, explained Ms. Novak, who swears her Hvar-born mother ''flew'' as a child, lifted off her feet by a gust and blown the length of her family's backyard. ''Bura, the good north wind, blows clouds and bad weather away,'' she said. ''It is said that the evil south wind, Jugo, awakens the existing demons within you.''
From the Iron Age to the Iron Curtain and beyond, war has been a fact of life in a country that sits at the bloody crossroads between Europe and Asia Minor. Ten years after fighting ceased in the latest installment -- the five-year civil war that left more than 10,000 dead and hundreds of thousands homeless, caused more than $20 billion in damages and left much of the country in ruin -- the scars are not often visible, but the effects remain profoundly felt.
In the Dalmatian port city of Split, physical damage suffered during the war has long since been repaired. But the city, with its terraced homes and its Lido-like riva of outdoor cafes, is awash in unemployment, drugs and crime that arose in the aftermath of the war. Good hotels are few. Many more are in disrepair, having only recently been vacated by thousands of homeless war refugees who were given temporary housing in the city. One such is run by a skeleton staff and is embarked on a dubious campaign to attract tourists by hyping its casino and American Go Go Club, featuring 36 dancers and a ''Lesbian Sex Show.''
Split is home to the enormous, fortresslike marble palace where the Emperor Diocletian, known for his persecution of Christians, retired in the early fourth century. The place still teems with life; residents live in its apartments, and many restaurants and pubs allow visitors to dance, at least figuratively, on the emperor's grave.
With a 1,700-year-old interactive theme park like that in its midst, Split may well regain its standing as a leading tourist destination. Now, however, the city serves primarily as a jumping-off place for tourists catching ferries to the offshore islands or heading south on the Adriatic Highway, the spectacular, 150-mile coast road to Dubrovnik that offers a drive every bit as eye-popping as California's Highway 1, only without the fog shrouding the view.
Well-paved if serpentine and heavily trafficked, the highway hugs the mountainous coastline, offering vertigo-inducing views of the Adriatic at every turn. As it winds along the Makarska Riviera, the roadway is carved from the limestone cliff face of a snowcapped mountain ridge. Small towns with their clusters of orange-tile-roofed homes nestle around coves far below. The spires of churches and cypress trees reach heavenward, toward us.
South of Makarska, the highway crosses a wide, fertile flood plain, where farmers at roadside stands sell oranges and honey and tall, slender bottles of olive or lavender oils.
In unsettling counterpoint to that peaceful scene, an ugly black scrawl of graffiti is spray-painted on a billboard in Bosnia and Herzegovina (the highway passes through a 10-mile-wide strip in Dalmatia that gives Croatia's neighbor access to the sea), with the words ''I Love '' in English followed by a swastika. The graffiti markings are a chilling reminder that old hatreds die hard in the Balkans. So are the dozens of white ribbons of cloth tied to roadside bushes and fence posts we see when we take a long detour across the mountains and into Krajina.
Most guidebooks warn visitors away from Krajina, a former Serbian enclave that was the scene of bloody sectarian violence during the war. The cloth strips, Ms. Novak said, were tied to mark the location of land mines planted during the war and yet to be removed by the Croatian military.
Around a bend, we see a large color photo poster of a fugitive Croatian army general, Ante Gotovina, wanted by the Hague war crimes tribunal. The general, like some Serbian counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia's primary foe in the 1991-95 war, stands accused of committing atrocities during that conflict.
Most Croatians I spoke with say they are looking west in the hope of gaining admission to the European Union, which they believe would bring security to the volatile, war-torn Balkan region, reduce trade restrictions and enable the country's ancient wine and olive industries to flourish anew. The general, whose whereabouts are unknown, is the focus of new debate. During my visit it was announced that Croatia's invitation to join the union was contingent in part upon his arrest or surrender, actions strongly opposed by the country's loud rightist minority. Beneath the poster's portrait of the warrior in uniform, his supporters wrote the words ''Hero, Not Criminal.''
War and its terrors are not readily conjured today in Dubrovnik, the Croatian city hardest hit in the war. The long-prosperous and proudly neutral city state that survived for centuries as a beacon of international cooperation while mightier powers arrayed around it battled and bled, Dubrovnik is a walled seaside town of orange tiled roofs, marble streets and lyrically placed turrets and towers that make it look like a sculpture, exquisite from any angle.
Like many of Dubrovnik's architectural treasures, the elegant Hotel Imperial, severely damaged and in flames after an artillery bombardment in 1991, has been painstakingly restored to its prewar glory. Painted a bright Hapsburg yellow, with filigreed wrought-iron balconies adorning its facade, the hotel reopened in spring under its new owners, the Hilton Hotel chain, one of many United States and European companies and private individuals who see gold in this beautiful but tragedy-stalked city and country.
Just as foreign investors, who have been buying seaside homes and condominiums in Dalmatia, are betting on a lasting peace, some Croatians I talked with are wary.
''Every generation has its war,'' said Ms. Novak's 85-year-old grandfather, Bozidar Novak, who as a teenage partisan leader during World War II fought Fascists in the mountains of Hvar. His son, Srdjan, now a professor of physics at the University of Zagreb, nodded in agreement. ''It isn't something you think about,'' said Srdjan, a civil war veteran, ''when it's your home you're fighting for.''
Even Mr. Barisic, the self-described ''free artist'' of Hvar whom everyone calls Art, found himself joining the battle. ''All my life I hated uniforms,'' he said. ''I am Art, not war. But when war happens, you live it. It is not something you fear or avoid.
''Now,'' however, Mr. Barisic said, ''I am finished with war. That's the last one. It's over. Ours is the last generation to fight in a war.''
''I would be drunk with happiness if it was so,'' said Zdravko Bazdan, a University of Dubrovnik economics professor who survived near daily bombardments during the siege of the city. ''But this being the Balkans,'' he said, ''you never know.''
Along the dalmatian coast, many spots worth a visit
The Croatian National Tourist Office, (800) 829-4416, www.croatia.hr, is a useful source for information.
Though there are no direct flights from the United States, connecting flights from the New York area to Dubrovnik can be booked through most major European cities. Croatia Travel, (800) 662-7628, croatiatravel.com, arranges connections through Croatia Airlines, www.croatiaairlines.hr, on a number of airlines. In early July, a round-trip American Airlines flight from New York to Dubrovnik in late August (transferring in Manchester, England, to British Airways) was $1,065.
While regular rail service to Croatia is available from most Western European countries, the going can be slow and even slower within Croatia. Bus service is more reliable, with daily service from Germany, Italy and Austria (www.eurolines.com) and an extensive network of domestic routes (www.akz.hr).
Car ferries operate daily during the summer (less frequently off season) between Italy and the Dalmatian coast, crossing the Adriatic from Ancona to Hvar, in 10 hours (berths from $40, cars $70, at $1.22 to the euro) on Croatia's largest ferry company, Jadrolinija, www.jadrolinija.hr.
WHERE TO STAY
With hotel rooms at a premium along the coast during July and August, enterprising locals rent space in their homes by posting signs in town or on line. Private accommodations can be found on the Web at sites like www.findcroatia.com and www.hvar.hr. Hotel prices here are for high season, and include breakfast.
Hvar Hotel Amfora, (385-21) 741-202; www.suncanihvar.hr. If the private beach is too crowded, try the big pool (scuba and snorkeling lessons available) or enjoy the view of the small cove and winding riva from the balcony of the spacious fourth-floor lobby. Double rooms start at about $100, at 6.3 kuna to the dollar.
Hotel Palace, (385-21) 741-966; www.suncanihvar.hr. Facing Hvar's small but active harbor, the century-old hotel was built on the site of a Venetian palace that once housed the local parliament. Doubles from $180.
Dubrovnik Hotel Excelsior, Frana Supila 12,;(385-20) 353-353; www.hotel-excelsior.hr. A recently renovated luxury hotel offering five-star accommodation and service. The view from the Excelsior's terraces and balconies as the sun sets behind Dubrovnik is unsurpassed. Doubles from $255.
Pucic Palace, Od Puca, (385-20) 326-222; www.thepucicpalace.com. In the heart of Dubrovnik's walled old town, the four-story stone Palace, once a nobleman's opulent home, catered to visiting merchants, aristocrats and dignitaries during Dubrovnik's days as an international trading center. Today's guests enjoy in-room DVD players and art treasures on loan from the city's leading museums. Doubles from $584.
WHERE TO EAT
Hvar A cozy, candlelight-and-artwork-filled seafood restaurant located in a narrow, nameless alleyway a few stone steps from the town square, Macondo, (385-21) 742-850 (named after the town in ''One Hundred Years of Solitude''), offers fresh seafood and shellfish and wonderful local wines (the white Bogdanusa -- ''God's given grape'' -- and the red Ploski Plovac, 14 percent alcohol, are superb). Dinner for two, with wine, about $90.
Mali Ston This tiny town was built with 14th-century walls and fortifications on the Peljesac Peninsula, some of which still stand. Mali Ston, in southern Dalmatia, and its sister town, Ston, are renowned for the fresh oysters and mussels harvested from shellfish farms in the waters of the surrounding fjords. Kapetanova Kuca, (385-20) 754-264, a patio restaurant, with an array of pastas and succulent shellfish, is a popular stop for travelers on the Dalmatian highway. Oysters, an entree and wine cost about $80 for two
Dubrovnik Lora Rudnjak, the owner of Ragusa 2, Prijeko 30, (385-20) 321-203, a seafood restaurant and sidewalk cafe in the old town, took the name in turn from the original Ragusa (the name of Dubrovnik when it was an independent city-state), which her family started in Dubrovnik in 1929. Featured along with seafood, pastas and risotto are large platters of Croatian cheeses, thinly sliced Dalmatian smoked ham, octopus salad, oysters, mussels and clams. Dinner for two with wine, about $55.